I began the research for this book soon after moving to North Carolina in
2003. Originally, I planned to write a book on the history of the mambo and
its social and cultural significance in vari ous parts of the Amer i cas. Starting my
research with materials published and produced in the United States, I was
struck by the prevalence of the notions “primitive,” “savage,” and “Africa” in
describing mambo and related styles of music, including Afro- Cuban music.
I had encountered similar terms in some of the Cuban materials I used for my
research on Arsenio Rodríguez. I soon shifted my focus to researching the epis-
temological nature of these terms, primarily in anthropological thought of the
1940s in the United States, which led me to the work of Melville J. Herskovits
and his archival collections at Northwestern University and the Schomburg
Center for Research in Black Culture. From that point forward, I followed
many of the direct connections Herskovits had made during his acculturation
and New World Negro research, and the proj ect shifted focus accordingly from
the mambo to an epistemological study on these and related notions as under-
stood and used not only by academics but also by musicians, dancers, and
others as well.
The need I felt to understand the prevalence of the notions “primitive,”
“savage,” and “Africa” in public discourse of the 1930s through the 1950s was
indeed great. I wanted to write a book that explained why these notions were
so prevalent in public discourse including but not limited to academia. My
interests in this prob lem, however, extended beyond my research to include
specific experiences I had throughout much of my own academic life. During a
personal trip to visit my extended family in Quito, Ec uador, in 1996, I deci ded
to wander into the Centro Cultural Afroecuatoriano. I had completed my first
year of gradu ate school in the ethnomusicology program at the University of
California at Santa Barbara, and I was planning to conduct doctoral research
on an Andean topic. Upon recounting my visit to my cousins, one asked, “Why
Preface
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